Transformational Leadership in Crucible Moments

This post was shared by Executive Certificate in Leadership Coaching Program Director – and Principles of Transformation faculty – Bill Pullen. 

There comes a moment in the career of every leader when they are tested in ways that dramatically exceed the scope of any prior situation.  To continue guiding their organization to success, they must transform the way they think, act, and lead. For many leaders, that moment is now.

As the novel coronavirus spreads across the globe at breathtaking speed, organizations and their employees are being forced to reckon with radically changed institutional environments. New skills and new ideas are required to thrive as old assumptions are questioned or discarded. Certainties are fading away and an environment of ambiguity is unfolding where agility and creativity will be required of those who hope to have a hand in building the future.

In their 2002 Harvard Business Review article titled Crucibles of Leadership, Warren Bennis and Robert Thomas define “crucible experiences” as intense or traumatic experiences that have the potential to transform leaders – for better or for worse.

  • Crucible moments can make or break leaders and the organizations they lead – leaders either grow to match the moment or resort to more reactive, less skillful ways of leading.
  • Leaders who are prepared for the transformative potential of a crucible experience will be better able to navigate challenges and thereby guide their organization to success.
  • The experience of the crucible moment allows the leader to reach a new level of professional accomplishment and experience “a new or altered sense of identity.”

Bennis and Thomas lay out four essential qualities that allow leaders to make the crucible experience into a positive, rather than negative, growth experience:

  • “The ability to engage others in shared meaning.” Leaders need to be able to place events into a narrative that allow their employees to make sense of the situation.
  • “A distinct and compelling voice.” Leaders need to model confident and calm behavior as well as express humility – employees want a leader who is steady but also relatable.
  • “A sense of integrity (including a strong set of values).” As events move quickly and new ambiguities arise, a successful leader will be able to articulate a moral framework in which employees and organizations will be able to evaluate their actions, providing clarity.
  • “Adaptive capacity.” Bennis and Robert call this the most important quality and define it as composed of “the ability to grasp context and hardiness.” Adaptive capacity is the quality of navigating towards a goal even when the times require the questioning of old assumptions and the ability to maintain equilibrium even in the face of multiple adverse events.

I’ve spent the last seven weeks talking with leaders around the world about what this moment is asking of them and what it will take to step forward and creatively respond to the moment, rather than getting trapped in ineffective, reactive patterns. Regardless of where they are or the type of organizations they lead, the answer is always the same – this time requires that leaders resist the urge to act impulsively and instead take a moment, however brief, to pause, breathe, connect with their body and heart in order to respond thoughtfully and wisely. When it seems like the world is asking for quick action, having the ability to be present, centered, and grounded enables leaders to engage with others to create shared meaning, model calm and humility, act with integrity, and develop agility.

Eleanor Roosevelt said, “the future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.” It can be difficult in this moment to generate a vision for a better world, but that is precisely what is required to meet the needs of the present. Leaders who successfully guide their organizations through these times will face a reckoning that will test them as never before. Some will fail; but many will succeed, and they will do so by creating a new equilibrium that retains their core values while embracing the opportunities of disruption. In the process, the leaders themselves will find that they have been transformed just as radically as the institutions that they lead. They will pass through the crucible and, in the process, shape the world of tomorrow.

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3 thoughts on “Transformational Leadership in Crucible Moments”

  1. Bill, thank you for sharing this thoughtful, insightful blog. I have been studying adult development the past few months as part of a four-month course, The Art of Developmental Coaching, which focuses on personal and leadership transformation.

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